Does Foodie Culture Exclude the Working Class?

"Once we listened to the Beatles. Now we eat beetles," George Mason University economics professor and Bloomberg View columnist Tyler Cowen once wrote on the idea of foodie culture. He goes on to say that music's centrality to American culture has been replaced by food.

This is clearly seen, as in earlier eras, people lined up for new album releases, not new restaurant openings or handcrafted doughnuts, and back then, pop culture social influence referred to music molding political protest, not foodservice companies and chefs taking the heat for political stances. With food and eating out being a social experience, it's no surprise that our culture shifted from turntables to dining tables.

Still, while foodie culture is working out, is this new tradition not working out for the working class? Let's take for example the restaurant audience in England. The University of Manchester found in a study that less than 10 percent of people who dined out frequently were working class. Manchester's Sustainable Consumption Institute also found that of the one in five "gastronomes" who ate at several outlets, only 8 percent were working class diners, while 70 percent were professional middle class.

So, how does this compare to foodie culture in the United States?

The Rise of Foodie Culture

There is sports and there is politics, but now there's food. People love talking about food, and in a lot of cases, a refined knowledge of or connection to restaurants tantalizes at the pride as badges of being educated and polished. A diverse knowledge of food is viewed as solid proof of intellect.

"Topics of art, music, and literature once were the conversations prevalent in restaurant dining rooms. Now it’s ingredients, sustainability, and chefs. Status symbols now seem to be if you can score a reservation at a hard-to-get in restaurant. As the rise of the 'chef cult' grows, more people follow into its spell," Donald Burns, The Restaurant Coach™, said. "The line is blurred between chefs and media personalities. We equate high food knowledge with high education because that is the model they see through the media. 'Food speak' is the new dialect and it communicates to the masses that are hungry for cooking shows, celebrity chefs, and social media." 

"On the concept that food knowledge can mirror educational levels, I'm not sure if one is causal to the other, but they are definitely correlated. People with higher education more often have the income and cultural acceptance to try new things, and people who are adventurous cooks may also be more willing to learn in other areas," Christie Ison of arfoodjobs.com said.

And as food education becomes a priority, with more and more consumers — millennials, in particular — are further invested in the back story and sourcing of what they are eating, where they are choosing to eat becomes a part of their identity, Burns added. Plenty of people contribute chunks of their budget maintaining that image, Forbes reporting on a 2016 study that showed millennials spent 44 percent of their food dollar on dining out. Due to economic conditions, Burns noted that many millennials live at home and "do not have the burden of a mortgage," allowing them to spend a higher percent of their discretionary income on social connection and restaurant experiences.

Andrew Carlson, author of "Customer Service Is the Bottom Line," agreed.

"I think that the millennial generation really started to appreciate food at a much deeper level than other generations have. My grandparents ate to survive because money was tight and the economy was down. My parents had the same mentality because they grew up with that mentality. But moving to a larger city, eating became a way to catch up with co-workers," Carlson said. "Millennials can partake in this because they are pushing kids to when they are older — if they're having them at all — and trying to move forward in their career, which means networking at restaurants, happy hours, and schmoozing with supervisors and co-workers." 

Barriers to Foodie Culture: The Plight of the Working Class

In 2016, the U.S. economy flipped: "no one cooks anymore" and restaurant sales outpaced grocery store sales. Although we're spending more on eating out than cooking in, food insecurity is still prevalent in our society. According to the USDA, 42.2 million people live in food-insecure households. While foodie culture and the appreciation of food as an art is on the rise, the fraction of the starving population still exists. And according to Newsweek, from 2007 to 2010, Americans on food stamps increased 58.5 percent.

Art form or not, food has always been a division of class, and "has always marked a bright border between the haves and the have-nots. In the earliest days of the Depression, as the poor waited on bread lines, the middle and upper classes in America became devoted to fad diets," Newsweek Senior Editor Lisa Miller wrote. Today, while the rich can afford to buy fresh and organic produce at Whole Foods, the poor hope for the best of lower-end grocery stores and what can be found on the dollar menu.

"When we promote food as art we dilute the real reason people go to restaurants…to break bread and share life. ...Food social media posts are popular because they are snapshots of edible art. In some ways we have traded function for form. A picture on Instagram can be stunning, yet how do you know that it tastes just as good as it looks?" Donald Burns said.

"Plus, most restaurants have succumbed to being average. Average is the new standard. For many in the working class, going out to eat for an 'average' experience is not worth the expense. It’s a better option to eat at home if restaurants are going to be mediocre," he continued.

And the working class is eating out less. In 2014, the New York Times discussed that with an average tab of $16.50 a person at Olive Garden, "The customers are middle class. They're not rich. They're not poor." However, with rising health care and education costs, even the middle class is cutting back. According to the National Restaurant Association, only 30 percent percent of restaurant operators reported an increase in same-store sales between August 2015 to August 2016, while 53 percent reported a decline. Operators also reported a traffic decline of 59 percent.

So, if even higher classes are limiting their foodie adventures and restaurant spending, where does that leave the working class in foodie culture?

The Future of Foodie Culture

As fast casual is surging across the U.S. economy and as fine-dining establishments are even bringing down formality to join the casualization movement, will this open the door to a more inviting foodie culture, one that can welcome even low-income families?

"The divide between the working class that the foodies is one of education. One avoids it and the other seeks it. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s just ignorance. When we do not seek the answers, we tend to draw conclusions and find it hard to justify the cost of things. Why does organic produce cost more? Some working class have a hard time knowing the difference. To them an apple looks like any other apple. The best thing the food culture can do is to assist others in understanding the why and talking to them, not down to them," Burns said.

"The new food culture is driving people to ask questions. Some people are uncomfortable asking tough questions when it comes to humanly raised animals, sustainable seafood, organic produce and locally sourced product. These are questions that need to be asked. We cannot live in denial about the fuel that feeds our bodies."

In Ison's view, she believes foodie culture is moving away from super-exotic ingredients and hard-to-find equipment. As a food blogger herself who witnessed the boom of food television and birth of foodie culture, she recalls the excitement of learning new techniques that were once reserved for professionals. Popular recipes no longer feature obscure and mysterious ingredients from the likes of '90s-era Martha Stewart, Ison said, but that standard ingredients are moving back toward the center and moving back toward simplicity. 

"I hope that the movement toward whole food, less-processed cooking impacts lower income families as much as it has other areas. ...My guess is that most lower income families want to cook clean, whole, healthy foods, but they lack the basic cooking skills to do so. With cooking instruction such as Cooking Matters, lower income families may catch up with foodie culture a bit," she said.

Foodie culture has undeniably grown. As Carlson observed, people are constantly educating themselves on what food should taste like and how it should be prepared. Consumers want restaurants to experiment with food but also provide healthier or lighter options. While it may be true that the trend to "eat with our eyes" will continue to be the norm, especially in this age of viral food photography, Carlson has another hope for the foodservice industry, as well.

"I see the future of this culture continuing to enhance, but with higher-end food for a more affordable cost. ...Tie that in with exceptional customer service, and the experience will be what 'wows' us. The bigger the foodie culture grows, the more knowledge we expect the employees to have, and the better customer service we expect," he said.